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Food left on the table: Foxx's support sought to feed more hungry children

By Anna Oakes, Watauga Democrat

Slumped shoulders, fatigue, low self-esteem and a poor attention span are the telltale signs of a child who did not get enough to eat over the weekend.

“You can see it in their eyes,” said Denise Combs, cafeteria manager at Valle Crucis School.

In the summer — when students do not have access to regular school meals — the risk for malnutrition is even greater. In northwest North Carolina more than 180,000 public school children qualify for free or reduced meals, but fewer than 10 percent of eligible children access summer food service programs, according to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC. In Watauga, the participation rate is even lower: Although 41 percent of school children qualify for free or reduced meals, in the summer, only 3 percent of eligible kids access the schools’ food service program.

Representatives from several agencies brought this message to U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC Fifth District) on Monday, hosting the congresswoman for a roundtable and urging her to support measures that would increase access to food programs. Every five years, Congress reexamines the laws that govern federal child nutrition programs, with a vote on reauthorization slated for this year.

The roundtable included representatives from Second Harvest Food Bank, Feeding America, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Watauga County Schools, Avery County Schools, the Hunger & Health Coalition and Hospitality House.

The area leaders emphasized the need for greater flexibility in administering the afterschool and summer programs, which currently require meals to be served and consumed onsite at a school, government agency, camp, church or community organization. In rural areas like Watauga County, they said, it can be very challenging for students from the ends of the county to reach programs located in Boone.

“Transportation is a huge issue,” said Monica Bolick, director of child nutrition for Watauga County Schools. Bolick said she would like to see a summer feeding program similar to Meals on Wheels.

The agencies would like the ability to adopt alternate program models in areas where children lack access to a program site, including a waiver of the onsite consumption requirement, sending meals home with children and giving families a grocery card to supplement their household food budgets. And making school facilities available for use by community nonprofits after school, during the summer and on weekends could help nourish more children when school is out, they said.

Elizabeth Young, executive director of the Hunger & Health Coalition, said there are many examples of hungry children in our area — including the story of one who mixed ketchup with water to make “tomato soup.”

Earlier this year, in response to the need in the western part of the county, churches, agencies and area leaders partnered to create the Western Watauga Food Outreach, which provides food boxes and/or a community meal from 4-6 p.m. each Thursday at the Western Watauga Community Center. The program has been funded for three years thanks to an anonymous donation facilitated by the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge.

Still, Young said, “it’s been a real struggle,” and many still lack access to food programs outside of regular school hours.

The agencies also asked for consolidation of the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program that supports after-school food programs and the Summer Food Service Program, eliminating duplicative administrative processes and paperwork.

“Help us do what we do better,” said Alan Briggs, executive director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.

Foxx asked some questions and sought clarifications during the roundtable, followed by a tour of Hospitality House and the Hunger & Health Coalition.

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